Sunday, 13 April 2014

Brief Review of "Grey Gardens" (1975)

Grey Gardens is an understated documentary about the relationship between a mother and daughter. Edith Beale (or “Little Edie”) lives with her mother of the same name (or “Big Edie”) in a large, isolated, deteriorating house. That’s the simplistic premise. It works exceptionally, however, due to the incredible depth and subtext of the uncomfortable relationship between the Beales women.

Thanks to the naturalistic shooting style of directors Albert and David Maysles, the film feels authentic and immersive. With long unedited takes of the Beales living their everyday lives, the audience is allowed complete and objective access to this rather tragic household. It’s like a nature documentary. We get right up close with these interesting specimens in their natural habitat, and we get to observe them for a good long while. It works brilliantly; the Beales are never shy of the camera - bickering unattractively and spilling forth their inner monologues. Without concern for story or plot development, one can easily forget it is a film, truly focusing in on these strange real life characters.

In the isolated, shrub-encircled house, conflict arises naturally between mother and daughter. We learn of tensions between the two, particularly in regards to their respective successes. Big Edie is an accomplished singer who maintains somewhat of her singing voice in old age. However, when Little Edie sings on several occasions, it greatly upsets Big Edie, who spills forth criticisms and objections. Whether ashamed, threatened or just wanting to be appreciated for her talent, Big Edie’s passive aggressive manipulation of her daughter is intriguing social commentary. The film portrays a realistic chunk of family rivalry, up-close and personal.

Cutaways between scenes depict birds and planes flying above the house, a motif that hints at the outside world - free and constantly moving. This contrasts with the two women’s stagnant lives - a situation they are blind to, reflected metaphorically in their terrible eyesight (Little Edie even using binoculars to see short distances).

The depth of material the film reveals in such a small physical area and with a leading cast of only two, is incredible. Grey Gardens demonstrates that interesting narratives, characters and relationships do not have to be scripted.

Brief Review of "Vertigo" (1958)

Hitchcock’s Vertigo is a perfectly paranoid thriller about trickery, fear and obsession. The narrative follows James Steward as John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retiring detective who suffers from acrophobia and vertigo. Through the film’s abstract subterfuge of eerie effects and dizzying (vertigo-inducing, one might say) editing, we watch as Scottie investigates a mystery that makes him lose his mind.

The film’s second act is difficult for the viewer, as events twist about awkwardly and Scottie is plagued by an unrelatable madness, so it is fortunate that the first act introduces us to an exceptionally engaging mystery. We, with Scottie, investigate Madelein, an inscrutable yet beautiful woman who does not seem to make sense. Scottie’s obsession with Madelein escalates dramatically until the shocking moment when she plunges to her death from the tower of a mission. From that point his obsession is thrown out of focus, and he projects his mania into hallucinating that other women around him are Madelein. Editing trickery allows Hitchcock to make us see what Scottie sees: recurring instances of approaching women who appear to be Madelein, then change into a stranger as they come closer.

Scottie fixates on a particular woman who looks like Madelein (whom, fate has it, is Judy, the woman who impersonated Madelein as a part of a murder plot). In his mad attempt to have the unattainable, Scottie works to craft Judy’s appearance into that of Madelein, despite her understandable protests. In this way his “love” is shown to be entirely self-indulgent.

Bernard Herrmann’s score is divine. Punchy and often bombastic, the music punctuates the film’s action and emotional beats from the word go, providing a rather affecting visceral experience. The score is as obsessed with its key romantic melody as Scottie is with Madeleine. It is a beautiful theme which is reprised dozens of times throughout the film to emphasise the heightened relationship. However, as with the reality of the relationship, the melody - when played in its complete form - flows from swirling beauty into a troubled stumbling of emotions.

The question arises of whether or not Vertigo is a romantic film. There are elements of romance, as Scottie is clearly infatuated by Madeleine and he pursues her like a lover. However, particularly in the final act, he is not very loving in his actions. He dominates Judy and drives her into a worked-up state of fear through his desperate madness. There are many instances in the second half of the film where it would feel appropriate for the film to end, but they are glazed by. Instead the characters go all the way into the madness, keeping the narrative alive until Judy dies like Madeleine, and then ending abruptly in that moment of horror. Vertigo can be perceived as an anti-romance film. It’s a story in which love - one of humanity’s most optimistic traits - is twisted into dark, narcissistic obsession.

Brief Review of "Badlands" (1973)

Terrence Malick’s Badlands tells a dark and dreamy legend which explores the psychology of an unemotional teenage girl and the murderous man she runs away with. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek star as Kit and Holly, an unpredictable, offbeat and unconventionally mischievous pair. Both appear somewhat queer at the beginning of the film, but develop into truly confronting characters as they become increasingly desensitised to the violence they bring about. Though their attitudes are always nonchalant, they are undoubtedly the drivers of their journeys. Well, perhaps Kit is the predominant the driver for them both. It is he that first approaches Holly at the beginning of the film and pursues her determinedly, leading him to shoot her disapproving father (the first of Kit’s many “nuisance-removing” murders).

The extroverted soundtrack is loud and intrusive and should by all rights be jarring, but in actual fact it blends well with the film’s themes. The high-pitched repetitive melodies emphasise the “fairy-tale” viewpoint of the protagonists; their whimsical journey of carefree destruction across the American countryside. Similar juxtaposition is key to Holly’s monotone narrations, which - often humorously - completely undersell the gravity of the characters’ circumstances.

Cleverly, the true focus of Badlands is only revealed in the film’s final scenes. While most of the film feels like a plot-driven journey which could easily build into a meaningless final showdown, when Kit shockingly surrenders himself to the authorities his character becomes the primary subject. Malick clearly understands that the audience is intensely interested in why Kit would do such a thing. Kit shifts so dramatically into the centre of the film’s spotlight that it feels like we are seeing him properly for the first time. He is shown to be more charismatic than ever before. It’s a subtle character twist which, similar to plot twist films like Sixth Sense, forces the viewer to see the entire film in a very different light. All of Kit’s motives are thrown into question. One of the most intriguing ideas in storytelling is that of the likeable villain, and Kit is exactly that. In the final scenes the audience is made to struggle with the fact that they are feeling sorry for this psychotic murderer. The film lives beyond its runtime in these unanswered questions of subjectivity, justice and how one should classify psychosis.

Brief Review of "Chinatown" (1986)

Roman Polanski’s Chinatown tells a multi-layered story of small emotional conflicts and large societal corruption. Jack Nicholson stars as private investigator Jake Gittes, a man who is reluctantly pulled into what is at first the simple investigation of an affair. When his target turns up dead, it turns into a murder investigation. As the complex web of mystery continues to build around Jake, he finds himself unsure what he is actually investigating. Still, he is inquisitive enough to follow it to the bitter end. This nosy character trait is reflected in the visual gag of the bandage Jack has to wear on his nose after it is cut early in the story.

Jack Nicholson makes an interesting protagonist as Jake Gittes. He is more gruff and unpredictable than the usual noir detective (fitting that he is a private investigator instead of a true detective).

The film feels intelligently built and firmly crafted. It has a remarkably clear sense of itself and has a confident approach to tropes of the noir genre. These tropes exist in character (Jake’s reluctance to get involved in the case followed by his inability to escape it til it’s bitter end), cinematography (dialogue in cars where all but a sliver of the actors’ faces are in shadow) and, obviously, the dense mystery plot.

One of the cleverest aspects of the film is the interweaving connection of small plot devices. Jake’s most common companion through the mystery is the determined Evelyn Mulwray, played solidly by Faye Dunaway. Subtle, seemingly-incidental references to her left eye are planted throughout the film, such as her rubbing it while driving and Jake noticing a birthmark in it. In the final scene of the film however, these are revealed to be foreshadowing, as Evelyn is tragically shot through her left eye by police as she tries to escape her terrible circumstances. Furthermore, in this final scene Polanski does not even need to show us that Evelyn has been hit. After the police fire at her fleeing vehicle, it slows to a stop and the car’s horn sounds continuously. It is at that moment we remember what had seemed to be an inconsequential moment earlier in the film when Evelyn accidentally head-butts the steering wheel of her car - sounding the horn. This is the primary cleverness of the film: subtly planting devices in the viewer’s head that they do not realise are there until they are dramatically called back to.

Very little is explained translucently to the viewer. We are forced to stay alert through each deliberately slow-paced scene in order to search for any clues to the direction the story is headed. This technique comes at a price of connection to the characters. Since we are never really let in on the characters’ goals - most of all those of Jake - it becomes difficult to relate with their decisions and resulting circumstances. On the whole however, Chinatown is such a solidly constructed film that it’s impossible for this minor lack of emotional connection to diminish one’s appreciation of the film’s many successes.